Happy Birthday To A Misunderstood Theologian

Tomorrow is the 31oth?anniversary of the birth of Jonathan Edwards. (I?m sure you were counting down the days.) Edwards, the New England pastor, theologian, and philosopher, is probably best-known for his sermon ?Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.?

In my community college English class we read portions of this sermon to the mocking disdain of students and professor alike. Many of you have probably experienced something similar. The sermon itself, while certainly vivid in its descriptions of Hell, is no more vivid than Jesus? own teachings about eternal judgment (see Matt 10:28; Mark 9:43, 47-48; Luke 16:19-31). But it?s a shame that to many people Edwards is known exclusively by this one sermon and thus characterized as a demented preacher obsessed with spewing venomous proclamations of hellfire and brimstone. That?s a distorted caricature of a man from whom we could learn much. So, in honor of his (almost) 310th?birthday, let?s take a closer look at Jonathan Edwards? life and thought.

Edwards was born in East Windsor, Connecticut, the only son in a family of eleven children. When he entered Yale University in 1716, he was a month short of his 13th?birthday. He was valedictorian at age 17, and had a Master?s three years later. (I find all of this mildly depressing.) He took all that brilliance and book-learning to the ministry in 1727 when he was ordained and became pastor of a church in Northampton, Connecticut.

He remained there for 23 years, during which time he would see several revivals, including the nation-shaping event of the Great Awakening. Despite what most would regard as a very successful pastoral ministry in Northampton, Edwards was dismissed by the congregation in 1750. He spent the remainder of his life as a missionary to the Indians and pastor to a small frontier congregation in the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He died on March 22nd, 1758, from a failed smallpox vaccination.

In the interest of brevity, let me introduce you to just counter-example to our popular image of Edwards as merely a ?hellfire and brimstone? preacher. Would it surprise you to know one of his lengthy sermon series was on love? Charity and Its Fruits is now a 16 chapter, 300+ page meditation on 1 Cor. 13. The final sermon, entitled ?Heaven is a World of Love? is a beautiful picture of the joys of Heaven. Here are some of the sections: ?Love in heaven is always mutual?The joy of heavenly love shall never be interrupted or damped by jealousy?There shall be nothing within themselves to clog or hinder the saints in heaven in the exercises and expressions of love?Love will be expressed with perfect decency and wisdom?There shall be nothing external in heaven to keep its inhabitants at a distance from each other, or to hinder their most perfect enjoyment of each other?s love?In heaven all shall be united together in very near and dear relations?In heaven [the saints] shall enjoy each other?s love in perfect and uninterrupted prosperity.? His conclusion? ?If you would be on the way to the world of love, see that you live a life of love ? of love to God, and love to men.?

There you have it. The life and thought of Jonathan Edwards in two paragraphs. (I left out a few details.) But here?s the last thing I think we should gain from celebrating a dead guy?s birthday: God isn?t dependent on any one genius, ?super-pastor,? or ?super-theologian? to carry on his mission. Edwards is dead ? and the gospel still goes forward. As the inscription on John Wesley?s tomb says, ?God buries his workmen but carries on his work.? Even titanic geniuses like Edwards aren?t necessary to God?s plan. The sovereign Lord is pleased to use us ? but he doesn?t need us.

So happy birthday, Jonathan Edwards. We?re grateful to God for you, and we?re grateful that God didn?t need you.

Image from Wikipedia.

My wife Anna, son Elliot, and I live in the little town of Franklin, WV. I'm a pastor. I have a degree in wildlife biology, which is useful for pastoring (actually, no). I like books, nature photography, working out, and being with my family. In a previous life I was William Wallace.